Hating Aaron Sorkin

Alex Pareene's quip that "Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals" has gone viral.

Alex Pareene‘s quip that “Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals” has been much re-tweeted and gotten agreement from Jesse Walker and others. Amusingly, as a conservative, Sorkin is the kind of liberal I most like–and not because he makes liberals look bad.

 Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals. He’s a smug, condescending know-it-all who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. His feints toward open-mindedness are transparently phony, he mistakes his opinion for common sense, and he’s preachy. Sorkin has spent years fueling the delusional self-regard of well-educated liberals. He might be more responsible than anyone else for the anti-democratic “everyone would agree with us if they weren’t all so stupid” attitude of the contemporary progressive movement. And age is not improving him.

[…]

He has a limited bag of tricks. Even his sparkling banter is one-note. His characters always say exactly, precisely what they mean, at all times. There’s no subtext, no irony, nothing ever left unspoken in his dialogue. His characters don’t even get to be sarcastic without someone asking them if they’re being sarcastic. Everyone alternates between speechifying, quipping and dumbly setting up other people’s quips. It’s exhausting.

Much of Pareene’s critique of Sorkin’s storytelling style and even his politics is fair. But I liked “A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing,” “Sports Night,” and even “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I haven’t gotten around to watching “The Newsroom” yet, but it’s on my DVR.

It’s true that his characters talk in fact-filled monologues in a way nobody I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a lot of really smart people—talk in real life. They’re nonetheless entertaining.

It’s also true that Sorkin is a smug, condescending know-it-all. For some reason, I don’t find that off-putting. (Okay, it might have something to do with my resembling that description myself.) Indeed, that description applied to most of my favorite Democrats over the years, from Patrick Moynihan to Joe Biden. While I usually disagree with them—particularly in the case of Biden—I appreciate thoughtful articulation of the opposing viewpoint.

More importantly, while Sorkin shares the delusion with some many pundits from across the political spectrum that everyone would agree with them on everything if only people were more reasonable, he doesn’t caricature his opponents. Indeed, even his villains are often likeable.

While it should be obvious to those watching “A Few Good Men” that Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup was the bad guy, he came across as so earnest and charismatic that I often see Jessup’s lines quoted non-ironically in support of deference to military professionals.

For that matter, as many have noted, the presidential election in the final season of “West Wing” foreshadowed the real 2008 election.* But, frankly, not only was Jimmy Smits’ Matthew Santos a better Democratic candidate than the real Barack Obama but I’d have much preferred Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick to the real John McCain. Sure, both characters were unrealistic—-a political fanboy’s ideal of what a gutsy politician should act like—but presumably that was Sorkin’s point.* After all, movie and television cowboys, spies, astronauts, cops, and soldiers are almost always better than the reality. Fictionalized heroes are generally an idealized form of their creator—what they’d be if they always lived up to their own ideals and what they’d say if they had the luxury of scripting their lines rather than reacting in real time.

Indeed, the President Josiah Bartlett character, superbly portrayed by Martin Sheen, is the sort of Democratic president that all but the staunchest conservatives could root for—taking all the best qualities of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton with only enough of the baggage to make them interesting. As much as Sorkin’s a liberal, he’s the sort of Democrat that a David Broder or a David Brooks would pine for: one who stands up for his values but seldom plays partisan games and constantly makes deals that take on the best aspects of Republican policy proposals. (This, of course, was written in a world where Republicans had policy proposals.)

That very Broderism, presumably, is the thing about Sorkin that really annoys progressives like Pareene. I’ve frequently quoted this passage from the second season of the show, in which Rob Lowe’s character (Sam Seaborn) rants against Democratic messaging on taxes.

Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, “It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share,” I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people. And I’m happy to, ’cause that’s the only way it’s gonna work. And it’s in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads. But I don’t get 27 votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn’t come to my house 27 times faster and the water doesn’t come out of my faucet 27 times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for 22 percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying.

Now, again, Sorkin’s dialog is stilted and absurdly idealized. Even a really brilliant wonk like Seaborn isn’t walking around with the “27 times the national average” figure in his head and spouting it off in rapid succession into a seamlessly woven argument. But it’s nonetheless a brilliant, middle ground spin. As I noted on a previous occasion, “While the fictional Sam is more liberal than the actual James, that’s pretty close to where I am as well.  I’d demur on the ‘happy to’ but concede ‘that’s the only way it’s gonna work, and it’s in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads.'”

But, to Pareene and other liberals, Sorkin starts out by conceding the rhetorical debate to the other side, which strikes them as a losing strategy. And, of course, to Walker and the Grover Norquist types, Sorkin’s insistence that those with the ability to pay more are gonna halfta do it is socialist outrage.

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*UPDATE: I’ve been reminded that Sorkin did not write the show’s final season and that, indeed, the Republican nominee that Bartlett ran against for re-election was a particularly unappealing caricature of  George W. Bush.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay_Dubbs says:

    Much like Limabugh is why people hate conservatives.

    Both are brilliant at what they do – but they are entertainers, not a strategists or candidates.

    Life would be better if people could understand the difference.

    And if you don’t like them, switch the channel or turn the dial to the right.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    But, to Pareene and other liberals, Sorkin starts out by conceding the rhetorical debate to the other side, which strikes them as a losing strategy. And, of course, to Walker and the Grover Norquist types, Sorkin’s insistence that those with the ability to pay more are gonna halfta do it is socialist outrage.

    Unfortunately for liberals (and I’m one) Sorkin is right, liberals long ago ceded the rhetorical debate turf to “the other side.” Liberalism has been a stale and spent ideological force since the 1970s. Since that time liberals have been playing defense, trying to hold on to the gains made 40 to 80 years ago.

  3. More a Community, 30 Rock, kind of guy …

    (As a guilty pleasure, anything about Alaska.)

  4. Scott says:

    I think as long as you view Sorkin’s work as entertaining and maintain that asthetic distance you can enjoy his work. However, I found “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing” unrealistic and I couldn’t get past that.

  5. Socrates says:

    I love Sorkin’s work. I don’t care if it’s pretentious, or self righteous, or preachy, or unrealistic. It’s intelligent, thoughtful, literate, provocative, always interesting. There’s not nearly enough of that around.

    Alex Pareene is why liberals like me hate liberals.

  6. Lib Cap says:

    … Who?

    Awww… who cares.

    If it ain’t got a zombie or a post-apocalyptic theme, it ain’t entertainment.

    Waiting patiently for October. 🙂

  7. Sorkin left The West Wing after the fourth season, so the characters of Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick weren’t his creation.

  8. @Scott:

    You do realize that “A Few Good Men” is based on an actual case, right?

  9. Scott says:

    @Stormy Dragon: It wasn’t the plot so much but depiction of the military (I spent 20 years in the AF). Any film has its stereotypes and when you’re are too familiar with the reality, then it loses its story value. Guantanamo Bay is pretty much of a resort and there is very little threat from Cuba. If the incident took place at the DMZ in Korea I could buy more into it. The issue is really mine and not the playwright.

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Idle time, idle minds.

  11. @Scott:

    Well again, the actual case involved a fenceline shooting in guantanamo. I think you’re right that there’s no threat from Cuba. In fact, I imagine Sorkin would agree with you. The fact that Jessup was so paranoid that he truly believe he was the only thing preventing Cuba from destroying the US was supposed to come across as borderline crazy.

  12. Scott says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Yes, isn’t it great for a change?

  13. Trumwill says:

    @Timothy Watson: Not only that, but the Republican nominee Sorkin did create (Rob Ritchie) was there to lose and look bad doing it.

  14. Ben says:

    The Newsroom has been really enjoyable for me so far. I recommend you give it a watch James. You might find yourself sympathetic to his politics, too. (The main character, Will. Not Sorkin, obviously)

  15. Linton says:

    I’ll take his screenplays for “Social Network”, “Moneyball”, and “Charlie Wilson’s War” over most of his TV material.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    Sorkin is an excellent writer. The fact that he’s so prolific makes it easy to parody him, but of course his dialog style is a deliberate choice. He’s working with the sound of the words and above all the rhythm and pacing as well as the content of the words. Like Mamet or Bochco. IT’s intentionally stylized.

    If you don’t think Sorkin is smart, try Political Animal, the limited series starring Sigourney Weaver as a sort of Hillary character. It’s unwatchable because it’s stoopid. It could have used some Sorkin.

    Incidentally, as pointed out above, Sorkin was not West Wing showrunner after the first 4 seasons when he burned out on cocaine. Lawrence O’Donnell took over IIRC.

  17. I was and remain a huge West Wing fan, but you have to admit that Sorkin had a very naive and idealistic view of politics. You can see it most especially in many of the first and second season episodes. The show took an interesting direction when the writers allowed Bartlet to be something other than the perfect incarnation of FDR, JFK, and LBJ combined and revealed character flaws and questionable choices that set up some of the most interest plot threads of the entire series.

    And, as others have noted, the shows portrayal of Republicans was hardly more than a caricature for much of the time that Sorkin was the showrunner.

  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Linton:

    I didn’t realize Charlie Wilson’s War was his. His best movie, in my opinion.

    @michael reynolds:

    Someone names John Wells took over as show runner for the 5th season, and it was just God-awful (I just finished watching it for the first time). After that it improved remarkably due to Lawrence being brought in as the chief writer.

    I’m currently on season 7 and it was as good as anything Sorkin did (and indeed better than the end of the 4th season, and the end of Sorkin’s run).

  19. Murray says:

    I thought people hated liberals because of Jane Fonda.

    Looks like I’m not at all in sync with the latest trends.

  20. wr says:

    @Neil Hudelson:” Someone names John Wells took over as show runner for the 5th season.”

    That “someone” is only one of the most successful and powerful producers in the TV biz — he climbed to the A-list as the uncredted co-creator and credited showrunner of ER and was one of the EPs of West Wing from the pilot on.

    And it’s my understanding that there were problems between Wells — who is essentially a one-man mini-studio — and Sorkin from the beginning. Not creative problems, but production ones. The buzz around town at the time was that Sorkin’s inability to finish a script on time (or stop massively rewriting once shooting began) was adding an extra hundred grand to each episode.

    Not disagreeing that the first post-Sorkin season was bad. Just that they didn’t hand the show over to “someone named John Wells” as if he was the first guy walking past the studio gates as Sorkin left…

  21. @Neil Hudelson:

    I am somewhat sympathetic to the theory that Sorkin tried to neutron bomb the series at the end of the 4th season when he knew he was leaving. The whole plot line with the VP being forced to resign followed immediate by a the President’s daughter being kidpnapped? That’s 70’s-style Movie of the Week stuff

  22. An Interested Party says:

    Sorkin had a very naive and idealistic view of politics.

    That’s rather amusing coming from a libertarian…

  23. Jeremy says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Considering that libertarians acknowledge that everybody in politics are all just human, and thus are no better than the rest of us, and thus are not going to be the angels that will set everything right through government force…we’re the naive ones? Please.

  24. Ron Morales says:

    Sorkin doesn’t caricature his opponents? Are you serious? Did you watch The American President? Senator Rumson, the Republican Party’s opposing candidate to President Shepherd (what an obvious name: The Good Shepherd; might as well have called him President Goodness) is the embodiment of evil, and an obvious reference to Bob Dole. There isn’t an ounce of a redeeming quality given to him. He’s completely a cartoon, as was the right wing religious characters (caricatures) Sorkin introduced in one of the first episodes of The West Wing. And Sorkin is insufferably condescending. The American President was obviously a love letter to President Clinton. However, in Sorkin’s delusional mind, all the brouhaha over Clinton’s sexual indiscretions were just a puritanical reaction to sex. In The American President, Shepher’d popularity drops merely because he’s dating someone. So Sorkin seems to think there’s absolutely nothing morally distinguishable between a married man (Clinton) cheating on his wife in the Oval Office with one of his subordinates at the same time as he’s being investigated for sexual harassment of a subordinate and then lying about it under oath, and a single man (Shepherd) simply dating a woman. Oh what ignorant, puritanical cavemen Sorkin must think the American population is. Sorkin IS the embodiment of the insufferable liberal.